Module I: Introduction

II. Method and Theory in Cultural Anthropology.

C. Ethnology.

Ethnological Schools

Differences in ideas about assigning meaning, making generalizations, and attributing causation are reflected in a number of theoretical schools. The proliferation of anthropological theories poses a quandry that anthropologists have never been able to fully explain. Perhaps the complexity of the human experience does not satisfactorily lend itself to a single interpretive system. The following represent the best known examples, but by no means cover the full field of theoretical alternatives in the discipline.

a. Historical Particularism

This school developed in the United States in the first half of the century under the guidance of Franz Boas, who did much to develop the culture concept and the ethnographic tradition. Mainly in reaction to weaknesses in 19th century anthropology, Boas contested attempts to compare cultures and draw up universal cultural stages. Individual cultures can be understood only as historically unique configurations and internal meaning systems. Historical particularism focuses heavily on the influence of ideology and cognitive patterns on behaviour and the primary influence of cultural values on all areas of human behaviour. Some of Boas' students tried to depict synthetic models of total cultures in terms of world views based on unifying themes and values.

You can read a short and entertaining example of unifying themes and world views within a little studied comtemporary culture available online in: (Miner, H. 1956 Body rituals among the Nacirema)

b. Ethnoscience

Ethnoscience is a subsequent American school that developed some of Boas ideas. It is particularly interested in culture as a cognitive system and has developed models of whole cultures and sub-areas by constructing prevailing semantic (meaning) categories and principles from culturally specific vocabularies. Because of the emphasis on meaning and emic analysis, this school is also called ethnosemantics. An important contemporary activity of ethnoscience is in the emerging area of indigenous knowledge systems. This field covers the detailed understanding of a people's specialized knowledge of their natural environment or other critical subject area as apparent in their semantic categories and principles. Research findings have disclosed important knowledge about plant properties and other natural phenomena that were previously unappreciated by Western scientists. They also demonstrate ways of managing nature which may offer viable alternatives to Western strategies of environmental use.

c. Structuralism

Structuralism is a different cognitive approach that was established by the work of Claude Levi-Strauss, a French anthropologist. His main departure from the historical particularists or the ethnoscientists lies in his analysis of classification and meaning systems in terms of universal principles. Accordingly, he identifies two layers of meaning, a superficial one, which the is observed and recorded from the native's perspective, and a deep structure which reflects a universal principle of opposition or duality. This constant feature is engendered by the basic human dilemma of imposing a rigid cultural construction on an ambiguous and ambivalent natural world. Basic cultural institutions, such as rituals, myths, marriage arrangements, and economic exchanges, represent the expression and mediation of intellectural contradictions and oppositions.

d. Structural-Functionalism

Structural-functionalism is predominantly a social primacy or social determinist theory and should not be confused with structuralism, which emphasizes cognitive rather than social structures. It was founded by the French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, and developed as the central position of British social anthropology by Radcliffe-Brown in the first half of the century. Structural functionalists investigate a number of social variables, such as population size, density, and complexity, but are most p re dominantly interested in how people are bound together within a social order, consisting of essential groups, roles, and conventions. Other aspects of society and culture are explainable in terms of their function in maintaining the particular social structure. Societies are classified into cross cultural types based on the size, distribution, articulation, and functions of basic social groups and categories.

e. Marxism

There are a number of Marxist approaches in anthropology but the most important is that established by Claude Meillassoux, a French anthropologist, who developed a version of Marxist theory that was grounded in detailed ethnographic observation. Consistent with basic Marxist principles, Meillassoux is a social determinist and sees cultural elements and institutions in the context of a prevailing social order. Unlike the structural-functionalists, however, Marxists view the social order in terms of class divisions, which are based on the restricted ownership of essential productive resources such as land or capital. Class systems are classified into cross-cultural categories termed modes of production. Meillassoux's addition to the Marxist analysis was to reclassify societies which most Marxists label "primitive communist" in a category alternatively termed the lineage or African mode of production. In these societies class divisions and relationships are evident in the dominance of elder family and community members over younger generations though control of marriage systems, i.e. the "mode of reproduction".

f. Cultural Evolution

Although claiming a heritage with 19th century evolutionism, Leslie White founded the school of cultural evolution in the United States on principles that rejected the racial determinism and rationalism of Victorian anthropologists, and in some ways advocated a Boasian view of culture. White's main thesis was that the driving force in culture and human affairs was technology and its ability to transform natural resources into energy available for human use. Cultures and societies assumed different forms and institutions in so far as they were able to capture different amounts of energy from the natural environment. Each society could be assigned a figure for the energy that its particular toolkit could produce, but would be more appropriately understood in terms of broader technological categories defined by one of a limited number of subsistence technologies. This perspective is adopted by Plog and Bates in your course text, which allocates a whole chapter (5-10) to each broad subsistence technology.

g. Cultural Ecology

Cultural ecology was founded by Julian Steward, another American, who adopted some of White's ideas but observed that a culture's subsistence base was as dependent upon its local environment as it was on its technology. Accordingly, he proposed a local ecology model which emphasized the influence of technology, natural resource availability and some social variables, such as population and intergroup relationships. Steward actually referred to his theory as one of multilineal rather than unilineal evolution and reflected some of the historical particularist influences from his mentor Alfred Kroeber, one of Boas' main disciples. Bates and Plog adopt an ecological perspective in combination with cultural evolution and accordingly include two case studies for each subsistence system to document different ecological situations. Thus the Inuit of the Arctic and the !Kung of the Kalahari are both hunters and gatherers but have developed differences in culture and society because of different food sources and transportation and storage technologies.


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